[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
Two of our greatest presidents are in fashion for the coming of the Barack Obama administration - Abraham Lincoln, who unarguably saved the Union, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, it can be argued, saved the civilized world.
They are in vogue, in part, because Obama venerates Lincoln for his vision and imitates his eloquence, and the president-elect studied the lessons of Roosevelt whose New Deal resurrected the government of the people from a dozen years in the cold, dead hands of Republican money changers who bequeathed the nation a Great Depression. History may not repeat, but it is an echo.
And it should not be forgotten that the 16th and 32nd presidents demonstrated the resilience of American democracy by standing for re-election during the course of the country’s real and most perilous wars without appealing to people’s fears. Few nations have done that.
Virtually every American of any age (and many non-Americas) knows of Lincoln, for his bearded and brooding visage is almost universally iconic. His speech at Gettysburg is memorized for its poetry. That face is on the five dollar bill and the ubiquitous penny. His marble memorial has been the backdrop for great events like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”
But how well known to younger Americans is the face of FDR, the longest serving and most important president of the 20th Century?
A year or so ago, my wife and I were having dessert one evening at P.J. Clarke’s on New York’s Lincoln Square, and we fell into conversation with the couple in their thirties, at the next table. At some point I asked them if they knew whose photograph it was that hung on the wall nearby. Neither of them knew. “That’s FDR, Franklin Roosevelt,” I said, without expression.
“I thought he looked familiar,” said the young man.
“So that’s Roosevelt,” said the woman.
I should not have been surprised; while Middle Eastern memories are too long, American memories are too short. Roosevelt was the president of my youth, the only president I knew until I was 16. (I tell people that my birthday, March 4, 1929, was also Herbert Hoover’s inauguration day, which helps explain my politics.)
Roosevelt’s death, after 12 years in office, through depression, the rise of fascism and the bloodiest war in history, left a hole in the nation’s heart that my generation has never gotten over. It still shocks me to realize how young FDR was when he died at age 63. John Kennedy’s murder was a national shock, but he had not been with us long. Yet more of young Americans remember him, than know much about FDR.
Now, for newer generations, the Roosevelt legacy is being recalled as the nation grapples with economic troubles not seen since his time. And the activist government he brought in out of the cold is still at our service, when Republicans let it: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Housing Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Export Import Bank, and, of course, the Social Security Act, which provides for unemployment compensation that jobless workers depend on today.
Obama, we hope, will put government and those agencies to better use. There is talk of re-creating the Home Owners Loan Corporation and public works programs. And perhaps Obama will restore the firewall built by FDR, the Glass-Stegall Act, that barred commercial banks from speculating in far-out schemes with depositors’ money.
It was torn down in 1999, by slick modern bankers who scoffed that Rooseveltian regulation was old fashioned, then made off with billions. That happened when the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, declared the “era of big government is over” and sought to “triangulate,” govern towards the center. He lost the Congress.
Obama might also learn from Roosevelt how to avoid the isolating “bubble,” that the president-elect said he fears. FDR had a novel way of staying in touch with what people were really thinking and saying and needing: Although most of the nation’s publishers fought Roosevelt, he was on great terms with the reporters covering the White House.
Within a few days of becoming president in March 1933, Roosevelt called reporters into the Oval Office. One historian recalls the scene: “‘They tell me that this won’t work,’ FDR told a shocked group of newsmen. The reporters were standing around the president’s desk and they were going to ask him questions that were not prepared in advance. Many an old newsman in that room must have thought the new president was mad.
“The old president, Hoover, had said indignantly that the President of the United States does not stand around being questioned like a common thief. FDR’s idea worked. It worked for 998 news conferences during the course of a little over 12 years.”
Until then reporters submitted written questions, but Roosevelt said he had no time for that. Thus, about once a week, when FDR gathered the reporters around him, he had the first question: “What’s on your mind, boys?” (The “boys” did include May Craig, a fine reporter with her signature funny hats). And with that he learned what was on the minds of the reporters, their publishers and their readers.
Roosevelt mostly spoke off the record, but his information could be used and occasionally he permitted reporters to use his quotes. His news conferences were conversational, filled with banter and humor – and news.
Could this work now, with 24-hour news, television, and bloggers? As a veteran of the White House press, I believe the answer is yes. The president is free to call into his office any group of reporters he chooses, as long as he shows no favoritism. And he may set the ground rules for the questions and the use of what he says. Bush has done this, but only with admiring right-wing journalists.
In 1934, Roosevelt, who ignored warnings to not go too far with his liberal programs, smashed the tradition in which the president’s party loses seats in off-year elections. Democrats and FDR strengthened their control of Congress (that has not happened since) to pass key elements of the New Deal. And in 1936, while most newspapers vigorously opposes Roosevelt and Gallup predicted he would lose, FDR won in a landslide, 523 electoral votes to eight for Alfred Landon of Kansas; the Democrats became the majority party for more than 30 years.
Roosevelt stumbled the following year, in 1937, according to New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, when he yielded to critics and sought to balance the federal budget and spend less. The economy, which had begun to recover, went into another slump and came out of it only when government spending soared at the dawn of the Second World War.
There is this, final lesson for Obama from the Lincoln and Roosevelt presidencies – their commitment to an activist, people-oriented federal government. During the worst days of the Civil War, Lincoln overruled his moribund Democratic predecessor, James Buchanan (who rivals George Bush as the worst of our presidents), and approved the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, which brought higher education to farmers and workers.
Roosevelt, in the midst of World War II, gave millions of Americans, including me, the GI Bill of Rights, which provided a college education, homes and even businesses to the greatest generation.
Roosevelt, the “liberal,” led his country into a war that he believed could not be avoided. Lincoln, under great pressure, would not allow the South to go its own way. Neither man, Mr. Obama, governed to the center.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Kate Dudding works out the ways she is My Father's Daughter.]